Trenton — New Jersey still allows unregulated septic system developments thanks to the failure of its Department of Environmental Protection to close a loophole on environmental review and DEP permitting of development projects fewer than 50 units. For the past three years, DEP Commissioner Brad Campbell has ignored recommendations from his own staff experts to move forward with rules first proposed by then-Governor Christie Todd Whitman to protect water supplies from the new pollutants and impacts caused by development, according to internal documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Each year, New Jersey loses between 10,000 and 15,000 acres of its shrinking base of rural, agricultural, and environmentally sensitive lands to development. Because sewer connections do not exist in these outlying areas, septic systems are required. DEP regulates septic systems serving large developments of more than 50 units. However, according to DEP’s own data and Water Quality Inventory Report, it is the small un-permitted commercial and residential developments relying on septic systems that are now the primary cause of new surface and groundwater water quality impairments. These developments create cumulative stresses on water supply and fragment farms, forests, and wildlife habitat.
To close this gaping loophole, in January 2001 the Whitman administration adopted major new rules requiring new developments of more than 6 units (or commercial developments discharging greater than 2,000 gallons per day) using septic systems to undergo the same environmental assessments as proposed new sewer service areas. The rules became effective on March 20, 2001 but were almost immediately legally challenged by the New Jersey Builders Association. Less than one year later, on March 18, 2002, the Appellate Division struck down the rules due to a procedural technicality. But during that brief period, the rules applied to and blocked 96 development projects that sought to build 2,400 new housing units covering some 9,000 acres.
Acknowledging the critical importance of implementing these new rules, DEP Commissioner Campbell appealed and asked the Court to stay the decision until the Department had sufficient time to re-propose and re-adopt the rules. DEP’s stay request was denied on April 17, 2002, prompting DEP to accelerate plans to re-propose the septic rules later in 2002. In May 2002, DEP staff briefed the Commissioner and outlined options to re-propose, adopt, and implement the Whitman septic rules. But Campbell thereafter took no further action to propose these rules, thus leaving the septic tank loophole wide open.
“Brad Campbell’s unexplained inertia on this issue over the past three and one half years may have cost New Jersey up to 50,000 acres of irreplaceable rural landscapes,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a longtime former DEP employee, noting that DEP’s inaction in re-proposing the statewide septic rules conflicts with recent DEP rules setting 25 and 88 acre lot septic density standards for development in the Highlands Preservation Area.. “Unfortunately, Commissioner Campbell’s deeds usually do not match his rhetoric, in this case leaving New Jersey with a legacy of sprawl, impaired waters, fragmented farmlands, forests, and wildlife habitat.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.